The Saturday Essay: Our modern age requires a new definition of beauty

The conventionally ugly can be perceived as beautiful, as shown by the response to some of this century's works of art
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The Independent Culture
IT IS not only Prince Charles who bemoans the loss of beauty in our culture, but almost everyone: the dislike of an ugly environment is not an acquired taste. Yet there is a problem with an uncomplicated view of the situation. For more than 150 years, artists and architects have shied away from seeking beauty for itself, and have doubted that there is an objective measure of it. Indeed, the ironic muddle over the term is rather democratic. People go on using a word which they doubt has any real substance, a situation I hope to clarify, by redefining its meaning here. Four essential aspects of the concept, evident in recent work, show what is at stake.

The first component is the most obvious. In a beautiful work there must be some formal coherence and brilliance; or, put another way, a relatively complex manipulation of a formal language. This, rather than a particular type of harmony, is what matters, because we can experience all patterns in nature as beautiful, not just the spheres, cones and cylinders of classical and modern aesthetics. For too long the West has mistaken one canon of beauty for the more general principle. But, as scientists have recently discovered, the eye and mind respond to every conceivable pattern - spirals, crinkles, folds, fields, zigzags and dots - all the fractal forms that underlie nature. It is the particular concentration on their intensification which constitutes the formal part of beauty. Put in a nutshell, this aspect of beauty, this intensification, concerns patterns about patterns, or patterns squared. This sounds unexceptional, but it contains a surprise.

It means that conventionally ugly patterns may be beautiful - even repugnant things such as gargoyles, or Brutalist buildings, or Chinese yellow-wax rocks. The last named can appear initially repulsive, but a Chinese connoisseurship has grown which celebrates their particular qualities, just as we have done with grotesques, and a host of modern works of the last 50 years. Beauty can refer to these discordant patterns so long as they are developed consistently and inventively, or when the patterns are self-reflexive and heightened.

The conventional definitions of beauty, for instance that of the Oxford English Dictionary, mention harmony, a perfect combination of unity and variety - that is one formal type: "such combined perfection of form and charm of colouring as affords keen pleasure to the sense of sight". The problem is that, in the 20th century, we have extended the concept way beyond such things as charm, grace and the perfection of fitness.

This extension, the second component of beauty, has led to "the tradition of the new". An old beauty is, if not tiring, still not quite as exciting as one perceived for the first time - caught on the wing. The reasons for this are complex and probably exist on several different levels, some of which have been illuminated by information theory, others by psychology and cognitive theory. One reason for the importance of the new concerns the way creativity stimulates neuronal growth and the way we experience it. To over-simplify: when the mind perceives a new idea it is partly aroused by its own growth. It is as if the mind received a natural pleasure in feeling its dendrites coalesce in new ways, feeling its glial cells send little nodules spinning down the neuronal highways to meet up with those on a different path. We can now watch such micro-growth on film and literally see new ideas linking up with old ones. Perhaps this is too physical a description, but I think it has a suggestive aspect. For instance, every time one hears a new joke, and finds it funny, the mind bristles with new connective tissue, and the feeling of pleasure - not to say the laughter - signals the construction of new pathways.

A particularly powerful example of this linkage creates the pleasure we have when perceiving a striking breakthrough. This one-off experience, when it is really significant, can be remembered for life. I would call it "Eureka learning", after the mythic occasion on which Archimedes, getting into his bathtub and displacing water, suddenly realised that the specific weight of gold could be measured. "Eureka, I found it", the delighted cry accompanying a substantial breakthrough, is more powerful than the everyday, micro-creativity we experience because the frames of reference are more deeply separated, more disjunctive, more unlikely. Hence our delight at the shock of the new when it is a real breakthrough, and not something merely different or clever.

I think this explains the truth behind every avant-garde movement, all the "isms" that have become "wasms", and why we value them. In spite of the bad art produced in their wake, their breakthroughs create momentary standards that are perceived as beautiful. They create a new way of seeing, feeling, experiencing the world, a new kind of knowledge, and this cognitive extension is an essential part of the experience of beauty. In short, the second principle explains why, in any strong experience of the beautiful, there must be some component of new knowledge, new creative linkage.

In effect, any new definition of beauty must deal positively with changing taste. Historians make the valid point that the standards of beauty are always being reset. In part they are culturally constructed. As information theorists showed in the Fifties and Sixties, the beautiful is a judicious mixture of a) what was beautiful yesterday plus b) a significant variation from it - a "swerve", in the well-known formulation of Harold Bloom. This explains why every avant garde has the difficult job of honouring and killing its parent at the same time and why, as a result of this double- take, there is coherent movement to art history - a dialectic of themes and variations from them.

A third criterion of beauty is that it entails an imaginative projection of a particular kind: one that invests an object with attributes of perfection. Perceiving is always an active investment of hopes, desires and goals of various kinds; it is oriented to a future state and, where beauty is concerned, that state is assumed to be ideal in some respects. Of course, the object must be suitable for such projection; classical beauties such as the Taj Mahal remind us of that. The moon, before Galileo showed it to be a dead lump of matter with earthly mountains, was a suitable object; it remains so for many, even after astronauts have played golf on it. The Taj and the moon were both suitable receptacles for articulating our wishes. Suggestive figures - enigmas, as the painter De Chirico argued - may also work this way. "Always suggest, never name" was an injunction of Symbolist poets and painters in the 19th century, and much modern and post-modern art has proved the point.

The fourth component to beauty concerns subject matter. The content, theme, idea, or archetypal emotion at stake must be sufficiently important for a work to be called beautiful. Content matters. But content, as some abstract painters and musicians have shown, can approach pure form, if it is manipulated well enough to become the mimesis or analogue of an idea.

In effect, the articulation of an abstract pattern becomes experienced as the equivalent of deep emotion; the formal pattern becomes the content, a truth often observed when someone, calling a symphony beautiful, remarks on the merging of content and form. The abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock, on view at the Tate from 11 March, is a particularly apt example of this truth: the patterns of his painting performance were translated directly on to the canvas as the expression of significant emotion.

Yet these cases of abstract formal brilliance, however important in themselves, are limiting ones and they do not address the main point. Beauty thrives on an emotion we find significant, or an idea we find fundamental to life: love, quite obviously, and first and last things, and our relation to the rest of humanity, nature and the cosmos. It is clear that all the modern masterpieces have some archetypal idea behind them, as exemplified by Stravinsky's Le Sacre de Printemps, TS Eliot's "The Wasteland", Picasso's Guernica and Le Corbusier's Ronchamp. The same is true for post-modern exemplars such as Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach, Salmon Rushdie's Midnight Children, Ron Kitaj's If Not, Not and Frank Gehry's New Guggenheim in Bilbao. One reason for the importance of the idea in such masterworks is not hard to find: it is a major spur to creativity - either an alluring goal, or the boot that kicks the artist several feet ahead of a competitor.

Gehry's new building illustrates all the aspects of beauty I have mentioned and, most importantly, their synergetic interaction. First, it has innovated on many technical and aesthetic levels at the same time: for instance, a French computer program has dimensioned and cut the curved shapes so there is little wasted material, little greater expense than if the building were constructed of repeated rectangles. It consists of something like 26 self-similar fractals, petal shapes with pinched edges that lead the eye to a culmination, like the arrises in conventional architecture, and these forms also sculpt the light quite beautifully. So new knowledge, both formal and technical, is here an essential part of the experience of the building.

Second, the exuberant metaphors of growth - the building seems to explode like a burgeoning plant - are appropriate for its cultural and civic role and, inside the museum, they heighten one's experience of the art. Being abstract and in a new formal language, the patterns suggest such metaphors without naming them. And finally, reflecting the moods and colours of the Nervion river, the setting sun, the undulating hills and passing trains, the building becomes a fitting symbol for the city. Why? Because it mediates between the very large-scale, the cosmos, the mid-scale, surrounding nature, and everyday life. A deep symbol always ties us into the whole context this way, and it is this that amounts to the significant content.

In effect, the four areas I have singled out have been knitted together in such a synergetic way that one cannot immediately understand the motives behind the forms. They are multiply coded, multivalent, many-motivated and ambiguous; any form or function slides into several contexts at once, and does so in a new way. As a result, many interpretations are possible, indeed inevitable, as in a response to all great works of art. One measure of worth, or beauty, is simply the number of different ways a work can be plausibly de-coded. And since it has been encoded in a way that extends tradition, it will be perceived and understood in new ways.

The great response to the New Guggenheim shows that its values are being strongly perceived. Both architects and the general public are excited by the building, and I think the reason for this is that they are learning from it while enjoying sensual pleasures. Its strength comes from combining two powerful instincts - the drives to know more about the universe, and to relate to the cosmos aesthetically, erotically and mentally. Many people have called the Gehry building beautiful, and that raises the general question I am posing in a striking form. Perhaps, since it is not conventionally harmonious, we need an entirely new word for the experience that combines the four areas? Perhaps "Cognirotic perception"? Or, the combined perception of the "Sensuolect", or the act of "Erocination"? These won't do, so, until we find a substitute, we are stuck with the old term. Whatever the word, however, the key issue remains at stake: the creation of cultural value.